Who Are the Blue Dogs?

Susan Walsh/AP Images
Democratic Representative Jane Harman of California, center, with fellow members of the Blue Dog Coalition at a press conference on Capitol Hill, January 19, 2007. From left are Representatives Jim Marshall of Georgia, Charlie Wilson of Ohio, and Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania.

A crucial fact about today’s Congress, and one that even many politically astute observers may not fully appreciate, rests in the vast ideological differences between the two congressional parties. I don’t mean by this that the Democrats have become uniformly liberal and the Republicans uniformly conservative, which is the standard grievance issued by the press, but rather that only the latter has happened—and that it has happened with surprising speed.

Consider, for example, a comparison of the makeup of the House of Representatives today versus twenty years ago, looking at the 101st Congress (1989–1990) and the current 111th Congress. The parties’ numbers of seats in both congresses is about the same: the Democrats had a 261–174 advantage in 1989 and enjoy a 258–177 margin today. But the changes in how each party got to those numbers reveals a great deal.

I made a count of each state’s House delegation in both congresses. In the twenty-year time frame, the Democrats have expanded their membership in twenty-two states, and the Republicans in eighteen. That sounds fairly even. But when you look at the particular states in which each party has gained, you see that the Democrats have actually expanded their reach into some states and regions where their party was traditionally weak, while the Republicans—after going as high as around 230 seats when they were in the majority before being demoted by the voters in the last two elections—have mostly increased their margins in states where they had power already. These include the states of the old Confederacy, which started turning Republican in the mid-1960s and by the late 1980s were moving strongly toward the GOP; a few border states; and the Great Plains states that have always been predominantly Republican.

So, for example, the Republicans have added twelve seats to their 1989 total of eight in Texas, a delegation in which they now control twenty seats. The Democrats now control twelve. (In 1989 the Democrats had nineteen, the Republicans eight.) The Republicans have added six in Georgia (which the Democrats also controlled back then), five in Florida, two each in North and South Carolina, two more each in Alabama and Louisiana, and one more in Tennessee. Add a two-seat increase in Oklahoma, which was not yet a state during the Civil War but is today considered Southern politically, and the result is that the GOP today controls thirty-four more House seats in the South than it did two decades ago. The party has also added one each in border and Great Plains states—Missouri, Kentucky, Nebraska.

The Democrats over the same time have, to be sure,…

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